The Lost Roles of Late Night Talk Show Hosts

Let’s face it, late night talk show hosts don’t make the best actors. Their jobs call on them to break so many of the basic rules of acting. They speak directly to the camera, make fun of themselves whenever a joke misses, and do an unusual amount of facial mugging, all things that would get a regular actor fired. It’s hard to suppress these instincts when they’ve been drilled into one’s head from five nights a week behind the desk (and, in the case of most late night personalities, decades-worth of stand-up experience prior to getting on television), but that doesn’t mean Hollywood hasn’t tried to turn our late night hosts into movie stars. Let’s take a look at some roles the kings of late night almost nabbed.

Johnny Carson

The Dick Van Dyke Show (1961)

The role: Rob Petrie

Who got it: Dick Van Dyke

When The Dick Van Dyke Show was first conceived, it was called Head of the Family and series creator Carl Reiner cast himself in the lead role. After viewing a pilot filmed with Reiner as Rob Petrie, the network decided he was “too Jewish, too intellectual and too New York.” Oh, those crazy ‘60s! Johnny Carson was a major contender for the job, until the network allowed Dick Van Dyke, who was hot off of a Brodway run in Bye Bye Birdie, to audition. Carson would inherit The Tonight Show the following year, becoming the most successful late night talk show host in the history of the medium and turning the show into one of most prestigious franchises in TV history, so I imagine he wasn’t too torn up about this one.

If The Dick Van Dyke Show had still been a hit with Johnny Carson as the lead, it would have prevented him from taking the Tonight Show job, changing the course of late night television and leaving future generations of hosts whom he influenced (Letterman, Leno, O’Brien, etc.) without a role model. Hell, the late night talk show as a genre might have died out completely without Johnny.

The King of Comedy (1982)

The role: Jerry Langford

Who got it: Jerry Lewis

Martin Scorsese wanted Johnny Carson to play Jerry Langford, the late night talk show host whom Robert DeNiro’s demented amateur comic Rupert Pupkin kidnaps in The King of Comedy. Carson had plenty of experience as a real talk show host, but he’s a little too likeable and jolly for the part. It’s hard to imagine him giving a performance better than Jerry Lewis’s in this pitch-black comedy. Carson wasn’t the only talk show host who was considered for this role. Paul Zimmerman, who wrote the screenplay fourteen years prior to its release, had Dick Cavett in mind for the role originally.

Jay Leno

Like many stand-up comedians at the time, Jay Leno began to pursue acting once his career started to take off in the late 70’s. Leno never had much success on the big-screen, his most significant role being in 1989’s Collision Course, a mismatched partners cop movie that paired him with Pat Morita of Happy Days and The Karate Kid fame. Oh, those crazy 80’s! Instead of a cop movie, Leno and Morita should have just made a Karate Kid sequel in which Mr. Miyagi teaches martial arts to a blue collar auto mechanic.

Howard the Duck (1986)

The role: Phil Blumburtt

Who got it: Tim Robbins

Leno was considered for a lead role in the George Lucas bomb, Howard the Duck. Tim Robbins beat him out for the part, and the movie went on to become one of the era’s most famous flops. It certainly didn’t hurt Robbins’s career too badly, though, with the failure of the project largely resting on the shoulders of  George Lucas and the creative team. Jay Leno would have likely been able to emerge from this one unscathed too, if he had won the part, but it may have put a crimp in his late night career, giving David Letterman a little bit of an edge when it came to competing over the Tonight Show hosting spot.

David Letterman

Airplane! (1980)

The role: Ted Striker

Who got it: Robert Hays

David Letterman screen-tested for the lead role in this revered comedy, but was passed over for Robert Hays. Letterman seems like an odd choice for this part. Hays played it straight, which is what the material necessitated, but Letterman’s sarcastic, jokey style might have given the film a much different and less effective vibe. However, if Airplane! had been anywhere near as big a hit with Letterman in the cockpit as it was with Hays, then it would have been the launch of a very promising film career. Letterman also auditioned for the newsman role in an earlier Zucker/Abrahams/Zucker project, Kentucky Fried Movie, but he didn’t book that one either.

Untitled George Meyer Project (in development late 80’s)

Back in the 80’s, before David Letterman’s show really took off, he started searching for a feature film he could star in. He commissioned a script by George Meyer, a member of his original writing staff who would go on to create the cult favorite comedy ‘zine, Army Man, and to be one of the dominant writers in the early days of The Simpsons. Meyer began working on the script in 1987, while cooped up in a Boulder, Colorado, condo after quitting SNL and retreating from the entertainment industry for a few months. Meyer finished the script, but Letterman and the studio lost interest in carving out a feature film career as his show gained more and more popularity. Little is known about the script, but, like Meyer’s Army Man, it’s taken on a near mythic reputation amongst comedy fans. From a 2000 New Yorker piece on Meyer:

Meyer’s script is still considered a masterpiece by the small group of people who’ve seen it. A tattered copy had a second life, in the Simpsons rewrite room, where for several years the show’s other writers would guiltily consult it whenever they were stuck for a joke.

God, I really want to read that script.

The Tonight Show (1992)

The role: Host

Who got it: Jay Leno

For years, Letterman was considered a shoo-in for the Tonight Show gig once Johnny Carson vacated the position. The ensuing debacle, in which Jay Leno and his monster-of-a-manager Helen Kushnick nudged Johnny Carson toward an early retirement and clawed their ways past Letterman to secure a hosting gig, has been well-documented elsewhere, particularly in Bill Carter’s 1994 book The Late Shift. History repeated itself last year, with Leno taking the hosting job away from another late night luminary, Conan O’Brien, prompting another book from Carter.

Arsenio Hall

Bad Boys (1995)

The role: Mike Lowry

Who got it: Will Smith

Arsenio Hall, the king of syndicated late night TV for a short window in the late 80’s and early 90’s, once had a movie career more impressive than anyone else in the field. His most notable big-screen role was as Eddie Murphy’s sidekick in Coming to America, but he missed out on another well-known part in the Michael Bay action comedy Bad Boys. Bad Boys was originally intended to be, oddly enough, a Dana Carvey-Jon Lovitz vehicle. When that plan was scrapped, the film was rewritten for two African-American actors. Before the part of Mike Lowry was given to Will Smith, Arsenio Hall was considered for it. Landing this part in Bad Boys could have kept Hall’s career breathing into the late 90’s, but the film probably wouldn’t have been as big a hit without the pairing of up-and-comers Will Smith and Martin Lawrence.

Conan O’Brien

Lookwell (1991 pilot, not picked up)


Before becoming the host of Late Night, Conan O’Brien never pursued a career on camera (except for a few brief cameos when he was a writer on SNL). He did, however, have a major missed opportunity on television with a show he created that wasn’t picked up for a series commitment. In 1991, O’Brien created Lookwell with Robert Smigel, an NBC show about that starred Adam West, nearly a decade before Seth McFarlane started using him in an ironic way. The series was to revolve around the washed-up former star of a forgettable detective series who takes it upon himself to solve real-life crimes, despite the fact that the local police hate his guts. The pilot episode is very funny and could have made for a great series. If it’d been picked up, it might’ve cemented O’Brien’s status as a behind-the-camera guy but allowed him to branch out as a TV auteur. You can watch the Lookwell pilot in its entirety here.

Jon Stewart

Miramax deal (1995-1998)

After the cancellation of his MTV talk show in 1995, Jon Stewart signed a three-year, six-picture deal with Miramax, with the intention being that he would write and produce some of these films. Only two movies from this deal ever materialized, rom-coms Playing by Heart and Wishful Thinking, in which Stewart played supporting roles. Despite this, the studio did develop a few starring vehicles for Jon Stewart. Almost Romantic was to be a comedy starring Stewart and Janeane Garofalo as two old college friends who are reacquainted at a wedding and begin dating. Wavelength was a proposed film that would have starred Stewart as an MTV personality who goes at his boss a little too hard at a roast and is sent to work at a radio station in Ireland for the rest of his contract. The studio wanted to change the location to Jamaica, which Stewart thought was a bad idea, and the project never got off the ground. Stewart was working on adapting the 1977 Jack Finney novella The Night People as a feature film project. Stewart also filmed a small part in Miramax’s The First Wives Club as a part of his contract. The scene was in the trailer but was left out of the final cut of the movie.

Chasing Amy (1997)

The role: Banky Edwards

Who got it: Jason Lee

Kevin Smith was casting the Miramax film Chasing Amy while Jon Stewart was still under contract at the studio, and Miramax execs offered Smith a $2 million budget if he cast David Schwimmer, Drew Barrymore, and Jon Stewart as the three leads. Smith refused and accepted a much smaller budget. Stewart would end up working with Kevin Smith a few years later, when he played a news anchor in Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back.

Various late night talk shows (1993-1997)

Jon Stewart, along with Drew Carey and Paul Provenza, was one of the finalists for taking over Late Night from David Letterman in 1993. Conan O’Brien won the job, and Stewart moved to cable, hosting an MTV program that was highly successful for a short while. After the MTV show’s demise, Stewart signed a deal with David Letterman’s production company, Worldwide Pants, in 1996, to host a 1:35a.m. talk show that would have followed The Late Late Show with Tom Snyder. The show never made it to air, presumably because Stewart didn’t want that awful timeslot, but there was widespread speculation that he was being groomed to replace Snyder as host of The Late Late Show, on which he was a frequent guest. The job, instead, went to his Daily Show predecessor Craig Kilborn, leaving the Comedy Central anchorperson position open for Stewart.

Stephen Colbert

Trifecta (in development 2000)

Stephen Colbert wrote the script to Trifecta, which would have been his first movie, with Strangers with Candy co-creator Paul Dinello (who plays building manager Tad on The Colbert Report) and their co-star David Pasquesi. Sold to Artisan Entertainment in 2000, Trifecta would have starred Colbert, Dinello, and Pasquesi as the three main characters, with Amy Sedaris also playing a big part. Here’s how the movie was described when it was announced:

a screwball comedy about two hapless brothers, Lewis and Chet, who break away from their mundane lives and join forces with Troy, a psychotic conspiracy theorist with a penchant for pyrotechnics. The trio embarks on plans to steal an ATM, but turn out to be at best, bumbling thieves.

Sounds amazing! Between Lookwell, the George Meyer/Letterman movie, and this, Hollywood execs really seem to be holding out on us.

Two NBC pilots (in development 2002-2003)

Before the idea for The Colbert Report crystallized, Stephen Colbert was developing a couple of projects to star in for NBC. The first, a 2002 pilot written by Ken Finkleman, would have starred Colbert as a TV news producer, exploring his work and family life. The second NBC pilot was produced by Jon Stewart for the 2003-04 TV season and was based loosely on Colbert’s adolescence in South Carolina, but it didn’t seem to make it past the script stage. All for the best, I say, because Stephen Colbert being bogged down with a primetime series would have likely precluded the existence of The Colbert Report, and nobody wants that.

Craig Ferguson

Suddenly Susan (1996)

The role: Luis Rivera

Who got it: Nestor Carbonell

As a gag, Craig Ferguson showed up at the audition for Suddenly Susan and read for the role of Cuban photographer, Luis Rivera. Ferguson cracked up the crew with a shoddy attempt at a Hispanic accent that couldn’t escape his deep Scottish brogue. The ballsy move got him noticed at the studio, and he was cast in another workplace sitcom, The Drew Carey Show, later that year. His character still wasn’t Scottish, but British is a hell of a lot closer than Cuban.

Craig Ferguson’s Really Big Game Show (in development 2007)

In 2007, Craig Ferguson signed on to host Really Big Game Show (formerly known as The Wizard), a CBS series that was to incorporate improv and sketch comedy elements into a game show. He was planning on filming his talk show and this game show concurrently. With Ferguson’s high-energy performance and overly hyper-social nature, he’d be a perfect fit as a game show host, but Really Big Game Show didn’t go through. Craig Ferguson hasn’t given up on his game show host dreams yet. He’s currently working on another one for CBS, Identity Crisis, which is based on the popular board game of the same name.

Jimmy Fallon

Shopgirl (2005)

The role: Jeremy

Who got it: Jason Schwartzman

Jimmy Fallon’s breakthrough role was as a performer on Saturday Night Live and he kind of fell backwards into being a talk show host after his movie career didn’t take off. There was a two or three year window around his departure from SNL in 2004 where Fallon was prepping high-profile film projects. He signed on to play the young man competing with Steve Martin for Claire Danes’s affection in Shopgirl but left the project before production began.

I Dream of Jeannie (in development 2005-2006)The role: Major Nelson

Fallon signed on to play Major Nelson in a big screen adaptation of I Dream of Jeannie in 2005. The project would have starred Jessica Alba opposite him, but it never got off the ground. Fallon’s frequent SNL costar Will Ferrell had little luck in a feature film version of a similar high-concept 60s sitcom, Bewitched, and that film’s failure might have been part of the reason those involved lost interest in an I Dream of Jeannie movie.

Other projects

Fallon was attached to a number of other movies during this era, including a remake of the French comedy Tanguy, which revolved around a 28 year old man still living at home with his parents who have decided to kick him out. He was also considered for the part of Fletch in Kevin Smith’s proposed reboot of the series in 2003, but Ben Affleck won the part and later dropped out. The movie never came together.

Bradford Evans included Arsenio Hall so that you wouldn’t flip out.

The Lost Roles of Late Night Talk Show Hosts